Friday, February 7, 2020


Photos: Van Stein

Our quandary, not being able to gain entry into Dymphnakerk, requires refreshment. 

The choice of an eatery obvious:  Tavern Van Gogh, on Market Square.  

I order sautéed foie gras with sliced apples and walnuts, was it down with strong white beer brewed by Trappist monks.


Three children enter, costumed as kings, for our visit coincides with Epiphany.  They beeline for our table, sing a strange song, and hit us up for spare change.

Night descends fast as we stroll Gheels quiet streetsalmost no one out but us—past barren fir trees haphazardly strapped to every lamppost.   

Outside St. Amand's we come upon a  live-size bronze sculpture of a family of five, stark naked. 

Nearby, a dildo has been shoved onto the steeple of a street sign pointing toward Dymphnakerk.

Then we come upon a shop whose display window features naked mannequins.  

And another shop displaying naked mannequins.  

And then another. 

Most of the other shop windows display lace lingerie in black and red.       

Gheel has numerous pharmacies.  But not enough, apparently, because many sidewalk vending machines dispense condoms.

To prevent the mentally insane from breeding?

With such sexual therapy at play, no wonder surreal Gheel seems so calm.  

Noticeably absent:  any sign of police, despite suspicious characters (us) prowling the streets, and Van Stein having orb-gasms whenever he consults his camera and finds a growing family of spirit light-balls.

As we prepare to return to Antwerp, Van Stein suggests a Dymphnakerk drive-by to check exterior lighting.  None.  

But the churchs side door is open!

We jump out and bolt into the dark cathedral. 

In a far corner, two elderly women are taking communion. 

We remain quiet in the shadows; when they finish I follow the pastor into his small office.  

He turns to face me, surprised.

“I have come from far away to see your church,” I say.

“How far?”   He peers over my shoulder at Van Stein and the others.

“America.  Where are the relics?”

“Relics?” he asks.  “What do you mean, relics?”

“Dymphnas bones.”

He hesitates a moment, then nods grimly.  “This way.”  The pastor, whose name is Joseph, just like the president of St. Amands, leads us to a gated area near the altar.

“The relics are up there.” He points to an ornate reliquary. 

Centuries ago, relics meant pilgrims, and pilgrims meant money.  

Relics attracted tourism and commerce.  

They also attracted relic skulduggery (thats where the word comes from): holy robbers, dispatched by other rulers to acquire relics to improve their own tourism.

A holy robber visited Gheel in 1627 looking to steal Dymphna’s relics. 

Finding them heavily guarded, he bribed the Prior of Dymphnakerk, a priest named Bloem, into tossing him a few bones, which he took to the ancient Roman town of Xanten seventy-five miles away in what is now Germany. 

But most of Dymphna’s bones remain in the reliquary on high.

And to Dymphna-maniacs like us, mission accomplished.